Transatlantic Sessions

The revolving folk ensemble leave little to be desired in a showcase proving them to be the crown jewel of the first Derry International Irish Music Festival

Little wonder that death and heartache are the staple themes of universal folk music. After all, just consider the state of the world. Yet the very beauty of its physical landscapes and the songs of its seasons also inspires so much beguiling folk music.

The Transatlantic Sessions supergroup -– the jewel in the crown of the Derry International Irish Music Festival 2016 - has served up plenty of heart-melting melancholy since its conception by Glasgow-based Pelicula Films in 1995. Yet the musicians of this enduring cottage industry also deal aplenty in celebratory music that dispels the blues.

Before an enthusiastic audience, the balance between dirge, life-affirming anthems and uplifting romps is finely struck during this memorable evening.

From the opening square dance-cum reel of 'Waiting for the Federals' the shared roots of Scottish, Irish, American, and to a lesser degree, English folk music, are evident, though this has as much to do with the instrumentation as the song selection.

The full array of traditional instruments – minus bodhrán - is on display, while Jerry Douglas’ dobro and slide guitars lend bluegrass twang to the jigs and reels, and shimmering intensity to the ballads. Capercaillie's Karen Matheson, hometown favourite Cara Dillon, and Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, bring contrasting vocal styles to the show.

The soft vibrato of Matheson’s Scottish burr colors the Irish walking song 'Gura Mise tha gu Dubhach' – a lamentable tale of infanticide and fratricide and the fairy lover that sparked the murder – and a lovely Robert Bairns lullaby.

Karen Matheson

Dillon, on her rendition of Shawn Colvin/John Leventhal's wonderful country tune 'Shotgun Down the Avalanche' and the haunting 'Winding River Roe' – with only the faintest dobro drone for company – illuminates two contrasting yet equally seductive song forms.

The collective voice of the fifteen-musician ensemble is harnessed to full effect on a stirring set of reels and the sound of fiddles, accordion, flute, dobro, pipes and five-piece rhythm section in full flight is irresistible.

The music crosses back over the Atlantic with the arrival of Californian duo Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, whose flat-picking guitar virtuosity, honey-toned vocal harmonies and wry humour delight the crowd. Shades of Simon and Garfunkel’s chemistry colors 'Honey, Honey', while the Grammy-nominated duo’s exquisite harmonies on the dark-hued 'Snake Eyes' evoke the Everley Brothers - an undoubted influence.

Accordionist Phil Cunningham and Shetland fiddler Aly Bain have been collaborating for thirty years and their nuanced duet on the graceful slow air 'Ciera McCarthy’s Lullaby' once more rejigs the atmosphere inside the Millennium Forum.

The first set closes with the inspirational Rhiannon Giddens, whose story of escaped Afro-American slaves in Civil War-era America – the very slaves from whom she is descended – provides a moment more poignant than any of the music. That said, her powerful performance of the Civil War/slavery tune 'Julie' and her blues'n'gospel reading of an Odetta work song seem to conjure the spirit of Aretha Franklin.

Following the intermission the unexplained apparition of a large genie statue – like a cheesy pantomime prop – commands stage left. The strange figure, however, cannot upstage the music, which follows a similar pattern to the first set; lively instrumentals – part Appalachian, part Celtic - alternate with killing vocal interludes.


Dillon’s duet with Pattengale on Woody Guthrie’s 'Who’s Going to Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?' and the local lass’s turn on 'The Bright Morning Star' are second set highlights.

Slow airs, Gaelic-sung ballads and animated reels rub shoulders, with graveyards and brothels – amongst other things - providing the thematic grist to the mill of the musicians.

The only overtly English tune, rendered by The Milk Carton Kids of course, is Pink Floyd’s 'Wish You Were Here', which is deconstructed and beautifully recast with warm, folksy harmonies that would surely bring a smile to Roger Waters face. The show builds to a suitably rousing climax, with anthemic ensemble chants bleeding into a breathless reel. 

A spontaneous standing ovation demands an encore and the Transatlantic Session musicians oblige with the Ron Davies blues anthem 'It Ain’t Easy' as a belting vocal tribute to David Bowie, who recorded the track on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Who could ask for more? Well, perhaps if that bizarre genie could grant a wish, then a feature for bassist Danny Thompson, legendary rhythm man for Alexis Korner and Pentangle - and anchor for a who’s who of folk, pop and rock stars these past fifty years - would crown the show.

The seventy six-year old maestro, however, doesn’t step out of the shadows all evening, remaining steadfastly an unassuming yet towering servant of this universal music – like all the Transatlantic Session musicians, past and present.

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